From beach bonfires to VIP theme park tours: 7 ways to upgrade your Florida vacation
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A Florida vacation can mean different things to different people. It could be an adventure-packed, week-long trip to Central Orlando for a tour of the world's most thrilling theme parks like Walt Disney World. It could be a weekend getaway to Miami Beach where you'll lounge by the pool and beach by day and club-hop by night. Or it could be a beach house on the Panhandle or Gulf Coast where you can gather with friends or take day trips to some of the most beautiful nature reserves in the country. And, it also could be a trip to St. Augustine, the country's oldest continuously inhabited settlement, to learn the history of the Timucua Native Americans, Spanish settlers and others who lived there before Florida was folded into the United States.
With so much to do on a Florida vacation, it's tough to offer a single tip to make your trip special, but, there are some universal ways to upgrade your visit to the Sunshine State. Here are some secrets from TPG:
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Hire a beach concierge
In Florida, and other beachy locations, you can hire companies that act as your beach concierge. They can scout out the beach to find the perfect spot to set up lounge chairs and umbrellas -- and you can rent from them. They'll cart everything away at the end of the day, too.
Boogie boards, pool noodles and bike rentals may also be available. And, some outfits will pack a cooler with cold beverages, sandwiches and snacks for your day at the beach. On certain beaches, they can help you get a permit for a bonfire or even plan and serve up a fun shrimp boil or barbecue.
Your Friend at the Beach in Santa Rosa Beach on the Panhandle is a good example. This beach concierge company can send a masseuse to your condo, rent you a crib or other baby supplies, or set you up with a fishing charter. Other popular services include a beach photography session for your family, a grocery-delivery service and even the assistance of a private chef in your home rental or condo.
To find a beach concierge in the Florida area where you're visiting, check the local visitors bureau or chamber of commerce. Or, do an old-fashioned Google search with the name of your destination and terms like "beach concierge," "beach-chair rental and set up" or "beach-chair delivery."
Related: These are Florida's best beaches
Book a special tour with an expert
In Florida, there are a zillion opportunities to explore the flora and fauna -- as well as the cities and theme parks -- with an expert. To make your trip extra special, find a tour that matches your interests and gives you VIP access to some amazing parts of the state.
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On Amelia Island, you can call upon a professional shark-tooth hunter to help you comb the beach for shark teeth. Because of the contours of the ocean shelf along the coastline, it's not uncommon to find teeth from the extinct megalodon here too!
Many theme parks offer VIP tours with special behind-the-scenes access and skip-the-line perks. These tours can be pricey but may be worth it to you if you have limited time to explore all the fun. Younger families have rave reviews of Legoland Florida's VIP Tour and Universal also has its Universal Studios Private VIP Tour. Disney offers a variety of VIP tours, some starting at under $100 and others pricing out at more than $10,000 per day!
You can hire a private tour guide like My VIP Tour or Michael's VIPs to take you through your favorite theme park. If you have no idea how to plan the perfect trip, this ensures you get on all the must-do rides (without waiting in hours-long lines) and snag the best character breakfast reservations. It helps to have an expert to guide you through it all.
No matter where you're visiting in Florida, you'll find private or group-tour options. You may want to swim alongside manatees in a natural spring, picnic on a sandbar off the Miami coast, enjoy a dolphin-watching boat tour or go shelling with someone who can tell you about each specimen you discover. To find the right tour, check out the local visitors bureau or chamber of commerce. Both should have a list of area tour providers. You can also search Google or check out an aggregator like Viator.
Rent a convertible
This is an obvious tip but if you've booked a trip to Florida for the glorious, sunny weather -- and you plan to explore the area by car -- rent a convertible if your budget allows. Nothing screams "Freedom!" like rolling down the Overseas Highway toward the Florida Keys with the top down, the sun on your face and the beautiful turquoise water stretching out on either side of the highway. It's an epic road trip made all the better in the right type of rental car. If you don't rent cars all that often, here's TPG's take on the best rental car companies for all types of travelers. And, if you're under 25, here's how to get the under-25 fee waived the next time you rent a car.
Book a hotel with theme-park perks
If you're visiting an Orlando theme park, stay at a hotel offering early-entry hours to specific parks or skip-the-line passes to the most popular rides and attractions.
Everyone staying at an on-site Disney World Resort hotel has access to Extra Magic Hours. This valuable perk lets you and your family enter the park -- the Magic Kingdom, Disney's Hollywood Studios, Epcot or Animal Kingdom -- before it opens to the public, or lets you stay after the usual closing time. During these extra hours, select popular rides and attractions are open. If you plan it right and are at the gates as soon as they open, you can enjoy some very popular rides with nearly no wait and no need to "waste" one of your coveted FastPass+ reservations to skip the line since they will be negligible during Extra Magic Hours.
In addition to Disney's official resorts, the Extra Magic Hours benefit is also offered to guests at a few other hotels, too. Here's a list of all hotels offering Extra Magic Hours:
- Official Walt Disney World Resorts
- Disney Springs Resort-area hotels
- Marriott's Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin
- Shades of Green Resort
- Four Seasons Resort Orlando
- Hilton Orlando Bonnet Creek
- Waldorf Astoria Orlando
Guests of Universal hotels also get similar early access to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter and Universal's Volcano Bay. Guests can access the parks one hour before normal opening time. Valid theme park admission is required. The list of hotels that offer this perk include:
- Universal's Endless Summer Resort - Surfside Inn and Suites
- Universal's Endless Summer Resort - Dockside Inn and Suites
- Universal's Aventura Hotel
- Universal's Cabana Bay Beach Resort
- Loews Sapphire Falls Resort
- Loews Royal Pacific Resort
- Hard Rock Hotel
- Loews Portofino Bay Hotel
Both of the major Orlando theme park complexes -- Walt Disney World and Universal Orlando -- offer skip-the-line passes to certain visitors. At Walt Disney World, on-site hotel guests, those staying at Disney Springs-area hotels and other select nearby hotels can make FastPass+ reservations up to 60 days in advance of their trip via the My Disney Experience app, instead of the usual 30 days out for non-resort guests.
At Universal Orlando, guests of its Premier-class hotels -- Loews Royal Pacific, Hard Rock Hotel and Loews Portofino Bay -- get a Universal Express Unlimited Pass that lets you skip the line at most popular attractions.
Use a grocery service
Many people visit Florida and book accommodations -- like a home, condo or cottage -- that have a kitchenette or full kitchen. If you're tight on time, you can use a grocery-delivery service to stock the kitchen from the moment you arrive. If you have an Instacart membership, you can simply use that to schedule a delivery from a local grocer upon your arrival. (Here's a guide to ensure you earn bonus points for your grocery purchases.) Many people even get groceries delivered at Disney World.
If you're staying at a rental home or condo, the booking agent may offer a grocery-stocking service. Or, many towns relying on the tourist trade offer several options that you can find online or through the area's visitors bureau.
It's a huge plus to have everything you need, from coffee to breakfast cereal to ice cream and popsicles, from the moment you arrive.
Lean on your hotel's concierge
Depending on the type of hotel or resort you're staying at, you may have access to a concierge. Even if you normally make all of your own plans, you owe it to yourself to try to put the concierge through his or her paces. That's what they're there for.
In a nutshell, a concierge exists to help guests learn the lay of the land (they usually have maps and attraction brochures to hand out), arrange tours, secure theater tickets, snag tough-to-get restaurant reservations and more. A good concierge can ask you a few key questions and then make targeted suggestions as to the best things for you to see and do based on your preferences.
If you're staying in Miami during high season, the help of a good concierge is key -- especially if you didn't plan ahead and don't have reservations to the hottest new restaurants or are clueless about which clubs are worth the visit. The concierge also knows the best fishing guides, tour operators and more. If you're not sure where to start exploring, head to the concierge desk, which is usually in the hotel lobby, and explain what you need.
If you're not staying at hotel that offers the assistance of a concierge, have no fear. If you have a premium card -- like The Platinum Card® from American Express, the Chase Sapphire Reserve® and the Citi Prestige® Card -- you may have access to an on-call concierge as a benefit of your card. You can use these concierges in the same manner as the ones posted at hotels. Contact them via phone or email to ask about local transportation options, to inquire about restaurant reservations, look for local guides and more.
If you hold the Amex Platinum, The Business Platinum Card® from American Express or the Centurion Card from American Express, you can use the Amex app to browse and book restaurant reservations without calling the concierge directly. Go to the "Membership" tab in the app and select "Access Top Restaurants." From there, you can search more than 10,000 restaurants worldwide.
The information for the Citi Prestige Card and Centurion Card have been collected independently by The Points Guy. The card details on this page have not been reviewed or provided by the card issuer.
Reserve a beach or pool cabana
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Finally, although it can be expensive, we're all for splurging on the rental of a beach or pool cabana. It can get hot and humid in Florida and while beach breezes are usually the norm, having some shade, a fan -- as well as some additional perks like food and beverage service -- can be a huge plus if you plan to spend an afternoon at the pool or on the sand.
Many resorts offer cabanas at an hourly, half-day or daily rate. For example, you can rent a cabana at the Hyatt Regency Coconut Point's lazy river for $475. Up to six people have access to the cabana from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. (hours vary by season). The cabana is outfitted with a minifridge stocked with four bottles of water and six sodas. There's also a TV, cocktail table, two cushioned pool chaise lounges, a corner sofa, ceiling fan, safe and pool towels. There are even some "connecting" cabanas if you have a group that's larger than six people.
Having a central meeting place where you can drop off your things while you enjoy the lazy river, pool and beach can be such a boon -- especially when you're traveling with a group.
There are all sorts of ways to give your Florida vacation an upgrade. Whether you're visiting the theme parks, one of the state's many beaches or spending time at a state park or natural spring, you'll find a way to make your visit extra special.